The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The unlearned lessons of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Pentagon on March 22. (Cliff Owen/AP)

THE SENATE’S bipartisan repudiation of President Trump’s policy toward Saudi Arabia this month was driven by disgust at the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi — and by Mr. Trump’s refusal to acknowledge that responsibility for it lay with the Saudi crown prince. But the vote also revealed that senators have drawn some conclusions from the Khashoggi affair that go beyond a refusal to accept the premeditated murder and dismemberment of a distinguished journalist.

The case has altered understanding of U.S. equities with Saudi Arabia and underlined the growing threat posed by regimes that lawlessly pursue their critics beyond their borders. Above all, the vote was a rejection of the crude nationalism espoused by Mr. Trump, according to which the United States would tolerate crimes such as the Khashoggi murder so long as the responsible regimes purchased U.S. weapons or offered other commercial favors.

Mr. Trump, who for decades was a harsh critic of Saudi Arabia, has pivoted to defending it as a “good ally” that helps stabilize the Middle East and the global oil market while helping to contain Iran. He has repeatedly said any response to the Khashoggi murder should not put at risk the $450 billion in total purchases and investments he claims the regime is offering, including $110 billion in weapons sales. As has been documented by The Post and other independent fact-checkers, Mr. Trump’s sales numbers are wildly inflated and unlikely to materialize. His preoccupation with deals raises the question of whether he has his own businesses in mind; since his election, the Saudis have been major patrons of Trump hotels.

Columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah remember Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy of Hatice Cengiz/The Washington Post)

The larger truth is that, with Mohammed bin Salman as its de facto ruler, the kingdom has become a strategic liability to the United States. The crown prince has destabilized the region with his reckless adventurism, including the abduction of the pro-American Lebanese prime minister and a boycott of neighboring Qatar, which hosts the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East. His disastrous intervention in Yemen has strengthened Iran while triggering what the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. His boasts to White House counselor Jared Kushner that he would help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while forming an “Arab NATO” have proved empty.

When the Saudi government tried to push up oil prices this month in contravention of Mr. Trump’s public lobbying, it was a reminder that it will pursue its own interests in producing and marketing oil, not those of any U.S. president. At the same time, Mr. Trump’s vintage-1980s view of the kingdom is contradicted by the 2018 fact that the United States, as the world’s largest crude oil producer, is less dependent than ever on the Middle East for energy. Saudi Arabia has so far failed to move the oil price and cannot seriously threaten U.S. supplies.

Follow Editorial Board's opinionsFollow

The Khashoggi murder, which occurred inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, added impetus to a newer and more urgent threat — that of regimes taking their repression global. The Russian and Chinese autocracies have pioneered the practice of abducting and murdering domestic opponents even when they seek sanctuary abroad. Reporting by The Post’s David Ignatius shows that Mohammed bin Salman sought to adopt these dangerous tactics; several dissidents living outside Saudi Arabia were seized and sent to secret prisons before the Khashoggi killing.

So far, the democratic West has responded weakly to such aggressions. If the impunity continues, no exiled dissident will be safe and no Western capital immune from foreign hit squads. That’s one of the reasons imposing consequences on Mohammed bin Salman is more important than arms sales: The United States and other democracies will not thrive in the lawless world he would help to create.

In dismissing such concerns, Mr. Trump casts himself as a hard-nosed realist. He once suggested that the United States is as guilty as Vladi­mir Putin’s Russia of outrages such as the murder of journalists. As many senators recognized, that is a vile and dangerous lie. In fact, all modern U.S. presidents before Mr. Trump have promoted the rule of law and basic human rights. Even when the United States has supported dictators, it has sought to curb their excesses — and as the shah of Iran and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak might testify, it turned on a few who would not listen.

Mr. Trump would have the United States embrace a strain of realism in which U.S. values matter not at all. No outrage — even the dismemberment of a journalist inside a diplomatic facility — would signify so long as dollars flowed to U.S. arms-makers. The Senate was right to repudiate that poisonous and self-defeating doctrine. Now it should insist that relations with Saudi Arabia be reshaped to reflect a genuinely realistic assessment: that the United States does not need and should not sustain a relationship with the reckless tyrant who rules it.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The Senate’s resolution was a powerful repudiation of Saudi Arabia — and Trump

David Ignatius: The Khashoggi killing had roots in a cutthroat Saudi family feud

The Post’s View: To rescue Yemen, the U.S. must end all military support of the Saudi coalition

Noha Khashoggi and Razan Jamal Khashoggi: We are Jamal Khashoggi’s daughters. We promise his light will never fade.

Read Jamal Khashoggi’s columns for The Washington Post